Communicating With Your Attorney

Prior Bad Acts And Criminal Cases: Can Your Past Haunt You In Court?

One of the biggest legal cases in the news right now is the trial of comedian Bill Cosby for aggravated indecent assault. A multitude of women have stepped forward alleging that they were also victims of his sexual attacks -- each telling fairly similar stories. The question is, will any of their stories be able to be used in court? The answer to that question hinges on a very contested area in criminal law, involving the admissibility of "prior bad acts." Learn more about how prior bad acts can affect the outcome of a criminal trial (when they can be admitted into evidence).

Why are prior bad acts important evidence?

Many crimes, including sexual assault, often happen when nobody is around except the accused and the alleged victim. Without witnesses, the jury may have to decide a criminal case based on the credibility of the accuser and make their minds up in a case that is largely one person's word against another's. 

Why is the admission of prior bad acts into evidence a problem?

Prosecutors are generally barred from trying to bring up a person's history in order to use it as evidence of a person's character. For example, if you are accused of murder, you don't have to worry that the prosecution will bring up an old drunk driving conviction in order to convince the jury that you generally have a low moral character or are just a bad person.

It's an important protection under the law for anyone who has been accused of a crime. People shouldn't have to defend themselves against accusations for which they aren't currently on trial. They also shouldn't have to worry that they'll essentially be tried again for an old crime, for which they've already paid their debt to society.

How do prior bad acts get into evidence anyhow?

There are exceptions to the rule barring the admissibility of prior bad acts in certain cases. If the prior bad act meets certain criteria, the judge may allow testimony about it into court. The exact laws surrounding what prior bad acts can be admitted vary from state to state, but it usually hinges on whether or not the evidence speaks to the credibility of the accused. If it shows that he or she is being untruthful, it might be admitted.

For example, in the Cosby case, many of the women involved claim that they were drugged by the entertainer before being sexually assaulted. He claims that they all consented to the drugs and sex. Their testimony may end up being admitted to show that he is being dishonest.

What else can an attorney do to stop the evidence from going to court?

In the Cosby case, the introduction of testimony by a dozen or more women -- all alleging that he drugged and sexually assaulted them the same way -- will likely devastate his character and credibility with the jury. Which means that his attorneys will clearly want to keep the evidence out of court, if at all possible.

Attorneys can sometimes do this by arguing that the testimony about a prior bad act is so inflammatory that it would make it impossible for someone to get a fair trial once the jury hears about it. Juries can become prejudiced about a person's character to the point where they can't fairly hear the evidence in a case. That makes judges hesitant to allow in testimony about prior bad acts and more inclined to let each case be heard on its own merits.

If you're involved in a situation where you're concerned about your past being used against you in court, discuss it with your attorney carefully. Don't assume that it automatically will or won't be admitted into evidence -- that's usually an area that has to be fought over before a trial begins.

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